It’s not a secret that we have a pornography problem.
By “we,” I mean American males, but also American Christian males. It’s also a problem for females, but not as big a problem, and I can’t speak to it very well, so I’m focusing on the male side of things.
If you need survey data to back up the claim that American males have a pornography problem, you haven’t been paying attention. Virtually every boy has seen pornography at least once. Most see it for the first time before the age of 15. Many develop a problem and have a hard time stopping. I know because I’m one of them.
People get hung up on whether this particular problem should be called an “addiction.” I don’t think that matters very much. In my book, if you have a habit that you can’t stop on your own, it’s an addiction. Not a very clinical definition, I know. So what? Call it what you want.
But whatever we call it, we need to be honest. A Christian euphemism for the problem is “impurity,” which is a catch-all term for any sin of a sexual nature. Adultery, fornication, pornography use, “looking upon women with lust” (à la President Carter) — all these and more fall under the label of “impurity.”
Since all euphemisms are dishonest by definition, to talk about pornography as impurity is to be dishonest.
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When I say I am against impurity, I am, of course, against adultery, fornication, etc. But I am also against using the word “impurity” when we talk about these sins. Too often, we use it to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about what’s really going on.
What’s really going on is terrifying. People over the age of 30 or so (i.e., most pastors) have no firsthand experience with what young men today are up against. The turning point was 2005. Before 2005, you had to go out of your way to access pornography. You could go to old-fashioned, sketchy movie theaters or buy racy magazines, but to get pornography on your computer, you had to download files. Downloading files entailed the risk of viruses. And saving the file on your computer made it easier for someone else to find later. Many potential casual users were deterred by those risks.
Around 2005, the same year YouTube was founded, pornography tube sites began showing up. To borrow Pentagon jargon, it’s a totally different threat environment. When people don’t have to go out of their way to access pornography, pornography is going to get in more people’s way. Within seconds, you can watch any pornography you could possibly imagine, and when you close the browser tab, just clear the browser history and it’s gone. Nobody knows (except your Internet service provider). No file downloads, no malware.
If your idea of pornography is Playboy, we aren’t even having the same conversation. We’re so far beyond revealing pictures of models or famous actresses. However bad you think Internet pornography is, it’s worse than that, and the choices are endless. Inexhaustible supply, delivered immediately, no consequences.
So, yeah, I’ve watched it, and so has pretty much every other young male.
The church has been powerless to stop it. It feels like all we get are sermons on impurity. “Pornography” is always part of the speaker’s list of sins that fall under impurity, but that’s usually the only mention of the p-word.
There are biblical grounds to use “impurity” in this way. Paul writes of “sexual impurity” in Romans 1 and elsewhere. “Sexual immorality” is also a common catch-all, and in Ephesians 5, Paul writes that “there must not be even a hint” of it.
Although He doesn’t say “impurity,” Jesus has a totalizing view of sexual sin as well. In the Sermon on the Mount, He teaches that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
So when pastors and youth-group leaders lump together all sexual sins as “impurity,” they are following what Scripture teaches about sexual sin. They aren’t making a mistake of interpretation, but they are still making a mistake. All young men struggle with impurity. But the weight on each component of impurity is severely imbalanced.
Your average churchgoing young, single man in America isn’t sleeping around. He doesn’t even know how to hire a prostitute. He’s never been to a strip club. (He isn’t married, so he can’t be having an affair.) He probably has enough decency to not stare at women in public. He probably treats every woman he knows pretty respectfully.
But he probably watches pornography. He doesn’t have a problem with impurity. He has a problem with pornography.
Here’s an extreme example to illustrate the point. Let’s say that in the last month, a city has experienced one homicide, seven assaults, and 10,000 car thefts. In response, the mayor calls a press conference, and he tells reporters, “We have a crime problem, and we need to do more to fight it. I plan to work with the police chief to do X, Y, and Z to stop the crime wave in our city.”
The mayor isn’t wrong. A different car has been stolen every 4.32 minutes in his city for a month! But car owners are waiting to hear what he plans to do to stop car thefts specifically. Car theft is a crime, so the mayor is technically correct to say there’s a crime wave, and there was a homicide and seven assaults, too. But calling what happened in the last month in our imaginary city anything other than a car-theft wave is dishonest.
It’s the same with impurity. It’s dishonest to look at the specific problem of pornography use and conclude there’s a general problem with impurity. We need to teach from the starting point of the specific problem.
When teaching is framed around impurity, most men hear the list — adultery, fornication, prostitution, pornography — and think, “Hey, I’m only doing one of those; that’s pretty good!” That’s a reasonable thing to think when it’s framed that way. We’re all human; we all sin; if we avoid most sin, we’re doing okay. And we can always think of someone whose behavior is worse than ours to assure ourselves we’re doing okay.
That line of thinking is dangerous, however, and it has contributed to pornography’s proliferation. First, God does not call us to be okay. He calls us to be holy as He is holy, perfect as He is perfect.
Second, of course you haven’t done the first three. It’s really easy to not have sex with another person, especially when pornography is an available substitute. Patting yourself on the back for not hiring a prostitute — if you even knew how — is pretty pathetic.
By using “impurity” as a stand-in for what we all know the real problem is, pastors and youth-group leaders have unwittingly inflated young men’s views of themselves and made it easier to rationalize pornography use when temptations arise.
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So, what should we do instead?
First, call it what it is. Give sermons on pornography. Be specific. Be honest.
Second, address it early. “Impurity” is a euphemism, but it’s not the worst one. The worst is “adult entertainment.” It’s terrible because it signals to children, “This is what adults do,” and what kid doesn’t want to be like an adult? But it’s also terrible because it’s antiquated. Given that most people see pornography for the first time before age 15, sometimes as early as 10, if you don’t talk to kids about it before they turn 18 because you think it’s inappropriate, you’ve missed your chance by years. Every middle-school ministry needs to address pornography directly and in some depth.
Third, we need to understand that pornography isn’t something that appeals only to losers or creeps. The cool kids at school use pornography, and they talk about it at the cool kids’ lunch table. It’s becoming so commonplace that people aren’t ashamed to talk about it with friends. Why would they be ashamed when they don’t think it’s wrong? Porn users aren’t a type or a subculture. Everyone is susceptible.
Finally, separate pornography from other sexual sins. We aren’t backpedaling on Scripture when we teach that anger is a different sin from murder, even though Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that being angry at a brother or sister is like murder. Jesus is teaching that those sins have the same source in our hearts, not that they have the same consequences.
Imagine if every sermon associated anger with murder. Most people would be afraid to talk openly in church about the times when they felt angry, lest it make them seem like a murderer. A similar dynamic is at play with pornography. People don’t feel comfortable talking about it in church because they feel like it’s akin to admitting you’re an adulterer.
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None of this is to deny that pornography is evil, sinful, and wrong. It disgusts God. It makes a mockery of the idea that our bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit. It feeds expectations that no real-life woman could ever — or should ever be expected to — meet. We should not lower God’s standards for sexual morality, and we should not take a more accommodating view of pornography use.
We should take a different approach to upholding the same standard. The approach we have taken has failed. Pornography is a spiritual disaster, much as an earthquake is a natural disaster, and the wreckage is all around us. After an earthquake, people learn from the calamity. They rebuild in different places. They use earthquake-resistant architecture so that the next one won’t do as much damage. They don’t ignore that an earthquake just happened, or instead ponder tornadoes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions.
Our problem isn’t impurity. It’s pornography.
“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”